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Past performance does not guarantee future results. It’s also extremely tough to compare NFL teams across seasons because each season is its own story. But in order to lend another layer of context to this weekend’s games, I took a look at each conference championship team since 2002 (the 32-team era) and compared them by using three statistics I like to use when evaluating football team performance. By doing so, I wanted to see the historical comparables for each one of these teams and to see if the field is stronger or weaker than previous years. The data may not provide clear-cut answers, but the information provided allows football fans to dig deeper into the history of the game and hopefully reflect on the ebbs and flows as the NFL has progressed.
In this evaluation, I leaned on the following numbers.
SRS: A statistic devised by Pro-Football Reference based on points scored and points allowed to adjust margi%n of victory for strength of schedule. OSRS is a measure for offensive performance and DSRS is for defensive performance.
Weighted DVOA: A statistic created by Football Outsiders that takes each play for a team during a given season and measures it against the league average dependent on the situation. DVOA is presented as a percentage above or below league average which is 0. Weighted DVOA adjusts for how a team is performing late in the season.
% to League Average: Football is an ever evolving game so presenting simply yards gained per game or yards allowed per game across years is not an accurate way to assess team performance. A more accurate measure, especially as passing attacks have evolved, is to take these numbers and measure them against league average. In the following assessments, you’ll see each team’s passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, passing yards allowed per game, and rushing yards allowed per game expressed as a percentage above or below league average.
Each conference has its own interactive chart to view the four different measures I put together for all of the conference championship contenders along with whether each team was home or away, and whether they won or lost:
SRS vs DVOA – two different assessments of team performance
OSRS vs DSRS – one measure of a team’s offensive performance vs defensive performance
%RushYdsO vs %PassYdsO – the team’s offensive rushing and passing yards per game versus league average – a higher number is better
%RushYdsD vs %PassYdsD – the team’s defensive rushing and passing yards per game versus league average – a higher number is better
Below these charts is a simple table showing the numbers and ranks of this year’s participants.
While both New England and Pittsburgh have had outstanding seasons, it’s going to shock no one that neither of these teams is in the upper crust of AFC title contenders since 2002. That is a spot reserved for the likes of the ‘07 Patriots. This Patriots team resides in the top right quadrant of the SRS/DVOA chart meaning both their SRS and Weighted DVOA are above average for the 30 teams in this measure. Their closest comparable appears to be the 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won the Super Bowl. With regard to OSRS/DSRS, New England is surprisingly average offensively, but above average defensively, with Tom Brady’s four-games absence perhaps playing a part in this. Their pass yardage and rush yardage distribution puts them as one of only two teams, along with the 2012 Patriots to be above the study average in both passing and rushing.
The defense is above average in rush defense, but slightly below average in pass defense making them very comparable to the 2006 Patriots.
The Steelers rank above the ‘02 Titans, ‘12 Ravens, and ‘14 Colts with regard to overall rating, but are in the lower left meaning they rank below average in both SRS and Weighted DVOA. However, they are clustered close together with the ‘06 Colts and ‘15 Broncos, both of whom won Super Bowls. It’s also important to note that more teams in the bottom left quadrant (4) have gone on to win the Super Bowl than those in the upper right (3). This could be a case of teams either catching hot streaks or the fact that it’s difficult to make it to this point in the playoffs if you’re not a good team. You can only fake it for so long. When breaking SRS down between offense and defense for the Steelers, they are one of five teams to rank below average in both, but again have a similar profile to a previous champion (‘12 BAL). This Steelers team does have the best passing offense with regard to yardage versus league average of the five Pittsburgh teams to make the conference title game during this time period, but is just average relative to other teams in the study. Defensively, the most similar team in regards to yardage allowed are the 2014 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots who were also slightly below average compared to other teams since 2002.
The NFC contenders, the Packers and Falcons, rank very similarly to the how the AFC contenders placed. Atlanta, while not at the level of the 2013 Seahawks, 2010 Packers, or 2012 49ers with regard to SRS/DVOA, are clustered in the top right quadrant where they are above average in both categories for this study. Their closest comparable here is the 2007 Packers. Their OSRS is 2nd behind the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who like the Falcons, had one of the weaker defenses of this group. They are one of only five teams placed in the top right quadrant of the %RushO/%Pass O chart reflecting the most offensive balance. These teams went 2-2 in the conference title game, while only one (again, the Saints), won the Super Bowl. Relative to the study, the Falcons rank below average in %RushD/%PassD, but two teams that had a worse overall defense in terms of yardage (‘09 Saints, ‘11 Giants), won the Super Bowl.
Like the Steelers in the AFC, the Packers are near the bottom of the 30 team NFC grouping, but nowhere near the 2008 Cardinals, 2003 Panthers, and 2004 Falcons in terms of SRS/DVOA. Their weighted DVOA is better than both the 2007 and 2011 Super Bowl champion Giants with the 2007 iteration barely outpacing the Packers in SRS. Their OSRS is in the top half since 2002, but their DSRS is tied for 2nd worst with their opponent this weekend. Their passing yardage is slightly above average for passing yardage and their rushing yardage is below average for this study, but is actually stronger than the 2010 Packers that won the Super Bowl. Their rush defense is above average of the teams since 2002 and better than Atlanta’s, but the Packers’ main downfall is going to be whether or not their pass defense, last place in this study and ravaged by injuries, can keep up with the Falcons offense.